From a Million MOOC Users, a Few Early Research Results

Preliminary results of a study of 16 massive open online courses offered through the University of Pennsylvania show that only a small percentage of people who start the courses finish them—and that, on average, only half of those who register for the courses even watch the first lecture.

The study, conducted by the university’s Graduate School of Education, is reviewing data from about a million users of the courses, which Penn offered on the Coursera platform, from June 2012 to June 2013. Two of the seven researchers involved—Laura W. Perna, a professor of higher education, and Alan Ruby, senior fellow for international education—described the study on Thursday in a presentation at the MOOC Research Conference now under way in Arlington, Tex.

The courses varied widely in topic, length, intended audience, amount of work expected, and other details. The largest, “Introduction to Operations Management,” enrolled more than 110,000 students, of whom about 2 percent completed the course. The course with the highest completion rate, “Cardiac Arrest, Resuscitation Science, and Hypothermia,” enrolled just over 40,000 students, of whom 13 percent stuck with it to the end.

Of the million students, the largest group—126,471—was from the United States. The next largest groups were from India, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Russia, Spain, China, Germany, and Australia.

The researchers cautioned that the data present numerous challenges, in part because the courses differ so widely. Two, for instance, are designed for college students (“Calculus: Single Variable” and “Principles of Microeconomics”). About half of the rest are meant to help people do their jobs (for example, “Gamification” and “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources”), and the balance are intended for personal enrichment of one sort or another (“Health Policy and Affordable Care Act” and “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry”). The courses ranged in length from six to 14 weeks.

The researchers say that courses with lighter weekly workloads and fewer assignments had somewhat higher completion rates than those that expected more of participants. As the study continues, the researchers say, they plan to look at what teaching methods engage students most effectively, how best to measure engagement, and whether later versions of courses are more successful than initial runs.

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